Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Roadkill leads to discovery of burrowing snake

July 31, 2017

A new burrowing snake was added to the list of species endemic to Sri Lanka when International Day of Biological Diversity was marked on Monday, strengthening the country’s image as a biodiversity hotspot.

Mendis Wickremasinghe

A new non-venomous ‘shield tailed snake’ that lives under the soil was discovered from the Badulla District. The scientific paper describing this new species appeared in prestigious scientific journal ZooTaxa.

The new species is yet another discovery by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickremasinghe, who recalls that he first saw the snake as a single roadkill specimen in 1999 in Beragala. Later, during an island-wide herpetology survey, Mr Wickremasinghe decided to search the area.

The researchers dug randomly selected locations that are habitats for such species. They got lucky and found a snake hidden under the soil layer of a banana plant of a home garden in 2010. The snake was found about 15 centimetres deep and had a highly-modified head, bearing a blade-like rostral scale for burrowing.

Mr. Wickremasinghe said about 30 individuals could be observed during subsequent visits to the same locations. More such snakes were observed from the same locality and in suburban areas like Haldummulla with some of them seen moving above ground at night.

The new snake belongs to a group called rhinophis. It was named rhinophis roshanpererai to honour the late Roshan Perera, who was an instructor of the reptiles group of the Young Zoologist’s Association of Sri Lanka in recognition of his dedicated services to wildlife conservation.

With the new discovery, this rhinophis genus now has 20 such snake species with 16 of them found in Sri Lanka that are endemic to the country. The other four snakes are endemic to India. Three of these Sri Lankan species have been recently described in 2009 and 2011. Mr Wickremasinghe said there could be more snake species that belongs to this group, emphasising need for more studies.

Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana and Gehan Rajeev too assisted in this new finding. Mr Wickremasinghe also thanked the principal sponsors, Dilmah Conservation.

New gecko species with black markings
A new species of gecko, too, joined the list of Sri Lankan species last month. This creature lives in the Knuckles range and was previously confused with a similar gecko species. The researchers Sudesh Batuwita and Sampath Udugampala extensively studied the features of these geckos and established the identity of the new species. They named it cnemaspis kandambyi.The gecko has distinct black markings on the nape and a black lateral stripe begins behind the eye and extends laterally beyond the origin of the forearm.The species was named in honour of Dharma Sri Kandamby, the former curator of the vertebrate section of the National Museum of Sri Lanka, for his contributions to the herpetology and for his guidance to a number of researchers.

Published on 28.05.2017 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170528/news/roadkill-leads-to-discovery-of-burrowing-snake-242678.html

Threatened dugongs thrown a lifeline

March 28, 2017

The dugong is the most threatened marine mammal likely to disappear from our waters, but there are efforts to save the species reports Malaka Rodrigo. Published on SundayTimes on 26.03.2017  http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170326/news/threatened-dugongs-thrown-a-lifeline-234096.html

A Dugong (Dugong dugon) swims in the Red Sea (c) Fergus Kenedy

Thirteen dugongs were killed last year, according an informal survey in the North Western coastal areas by marine activists. This is one dugong killed every month and considering their rarity, is worrying, says Prasanna Weerakkody of Ocean Resources Conservation Association.

A dugong washed ashore on Nadukuda beach in December, 2016 (c) ORCA

The latest dugong deaths occurred December last year. A carcass was found on Nadukuda beach in Mannar. A few weeks earlier, another carcass washed ashore near Thavilpadu beach. Fishing activities using explosives are common in the nearby Vankalai Coral Reef and marine activists initially thought dynamite had killed the dugong found in Nadukuda.

“Through informal discussions with fishermen, we found out that one dugong had been trapped in a net. The fishermen knew it was illegal to pull it ashore and had it anchored under water to collect it when the navy is not around. But the carcass got loose and washed ashore,” revealed Weerakkody. There could be many other dugong deaths that go unreported, he said.

Dugongs are also called mermaids of the sea because some sightings of mermaids are actually misidentified dugongs seen from afar

The dugong is also known as the ‘sea cow’ for its habit of grazing on the seagrasses on the ocean bed. Seagrass is different from seaweeds (which is an algae) and are actually more closely related to the flowering plants with roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. Seagrasses can form dense underwater meadows and an adult dugong consumes as much as 45 kg seagrass according to experts.

Dugongs are vulnerable to extinction because they are killed directly or indirectly by human-related activities, which include fishing, coastal development and hunting. The seagrasses on which they depend are thought to be one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth.

In 2015, the “Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project” was initiated to improve protection and conservation of dugongs and their seagrass habitats around the world, said United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP)’s Max Zieren who recently visited Sri Lanka. Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste and Vanuatu is part of the project, which is the first coordinated effort, he added.

In Sri Lanka, the project focuses on the northwest region, namely the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay where dugongs have been recorded. The project is coordinated by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and eight other partner organisations are supporting.

Sugath Emmanuel, local fisherman and diver in Kalpitiya, said he had not seen a dugong alive. He recalled eating dugong flesh during his childhood, in an area where many dugongs were caught. The flesh was considered a local delicacy. Hundreds of dugongs were killed before it was outlawed in the 1970s. Now, about 90 percent of the dugong killings are accidental or by-catch.  

Dugongs are categorised as ‘vulnerable’ in IUCN’s threatened species list considering global populations, but they can be ‘critically endangered’ in Sri Lankan waters, says Arjan Rajasuriya, project manager of International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He has been diving for the past 30 years, but has yet to see a dugong alive.

IUCN’s responsibility in the project aims at establishing an additional 10,000 hectares of marine protected area in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. Rajasuriya says dynamite fishing should be halted.

The project also aims to raise awareness among people and also give incentives to abandon illegal fishing methods. Project partner, Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, is seeking to reduce the negative impact of destructive fishing practices on seagrass habitats and provide income generation opportunities to local communities in return for their commitments for the prudent use of habitat and natural resources in the Puttlam lagoon.

The Biodiversity Education and Research NGO has taken on the education aspect of the project, especially targeting schools. Ranil Nanayakkara, who heads the group, says the response from school children has been positive.

The overall project is financed by Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP / UN Environment)  supports its implementation together with the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their Range of the Convention on Migratory Species.

Dr Lakshman Peiris, who is the project manager of DWC, said the Wildlife Department was focused on addressing marine issues with the establishment of a special unit.

The Sunday Times also asked Peiris what will happen after the four-year project ends in 2018. “The project will give us lots of information. We will create a management plan and will make sure its implementation together with other strategic partners such as Department of Fisheries, Coast Conservation & Coastal Resources Management Department, and the Marine Environment Protection Authority. The Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Coast Guard can give us lots of support by monitoring and stopping illegal activities,’’ Peiris added.

Dugongs are also found in the Indian part of the Gulf of Mannar, but unfortunately India is not part of the project. Marine biologists say India too needs to get on board. Peiris of the DWC said plans are underway to increase coordination between two countries.

Marine biologists also stress the need for action, once a strategy to save the dugongs are made. “Since the dugong is a charismatic species, we can use activities geared to protecting it to also help us to provide a refuge for other threatened marine creatures,” marine expert Rajasuriya said.

Experts gather to discuss future of Dugongs 

The third Meeting of Signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Dugongs and their habitats (Dugong MOU) was held last week in Abu-dhabi. A number of DWC and NARA officials participated at the meeting representing Sri Lanka that signed the Dugong MOU on 2012.

IUCN’s Sirenia Specialist Group (dugongs and manatees)’s Sri Lankan representative Ranil Nanayakkara said the gathering provided a good platform to learn about conservation initiatives used by experts in other countries

Surveying Seagrass habitats

Tech tools track dugongs
The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency has developed seagrass mapping methodology and is doing research to produce seagrass maps on distribution, species composition, density and status, and threats in Mannar, Palk Bay and Palk Strait.
Prasanna Weerakkody says sonar is being used to identify seagrass beds. These are then mapped and what varieties of seagrass available in that area is marked. The Ocean Resources Conservation Association team is using drones above shallow waters to map the areas. “We particularly focus on areas in which fishermen say they had seen dugongs in the past,’’ Weerakkody said. “To conserve, we first need to know where dugongs are.’’
He says informal investigations are necessary to find out where dugongs are being caught. DWC’s Channa Suraweera showed us a new mobile app they had developed to get more records of exact dugong sightings. When a dugong is seen, a fisherman who has the mobile app can record its exact GPS location while taking a photo at the same time.

Mannar Dugong carcass washed ashore in November, 2016

Dugong also attracts tourists

Humphead wrasse killing stirs calls for protection and spearfishing ban

February 1, 2017

Declare the endangered humphead wrasse as a protected species in Sri Lanka and ban spearfishing, researchers of aquatic resources, diving groups and conservationists demand. An environment lawyer says spearfishing can be banned under existing laws.

Outrage grew after pictures emerged showing a human-sized humphead wrasse, (Cheilinus undulates) also known as Napoleon wrasse, being hauled ashore after being killed. This fish, with its thick lips and a hump on its head, is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is also regarded as a delicacy by the Chinese especially in Hong Kong where it fetches upwards of  Rs 45,000 a kilo. This coral reef fish must be in demand in Chinese restaurants in the island as well.

The fish can grow up to six feet and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It can live up to 30 years, but many are killed before they reach maturity.

Humphead wrasse is a popular target of spear fishermen.

In Unawatuna, a dive centre that mainly caters to Russians is allowing spearfishing which destroys many large marine species, marine activists say.

“In the case of the Unawatuna incident, the fish was speared outside the protected area and the law doesn’t ban hunting of humphead wrasse. So, we are unable to take any action against them,” said Channa Suraweera of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. He oversees marine affairs.

While hunting of wild animals on land is illegal, fish is treated as a food source, irrespective of the threat levels various fish species face.

Dr Sisira Haputantri of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency said the agency will be recommending to the Fisheries Department that the humphead wrasse be made a protected species. But that will only be a start as monitoring whether the fish is being hunted is difficult.

Large coral fish such as the humphead wrass are threatened in other areas of the island as well.

In 2013, the Sunday Times  exposed the danger to the humphead wrasse particularly in Kalpitiya area where divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the giant fish. They kill the fish even if it takes cover in underwater caves.

In times past, free divers engaged in spearfishing. They can stay underwater only for a limited time. But scuba gear allows divers to continue spear fishing for longer. “Scuba gear allows a diver to stay under water for long periods and chase a target fish. Most of the mature humphead wrasse in our reefs have already been hunted and large specimens such as the one that had been speared in Unawatuna are rare. Only a handful of individual fish that flee at the sight of a diver are survivors,’’ said researcher Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator, Coastal & Marine Programme IUCN Sri Lanka.

Dr Malik Fernando, who is a founder member of the Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club, a diving club, recalls how wild animals once heavily hunted in colonial times, have become a source of pride and joy in the island once they are protected.

“The land animals once hunted by a few brought wonder and joy to many, such as those who ventured into wild places and protected areas in search of them. Visiting wildlife parks became a major recreational activity and a source of income for the Government. What we are proposing for the marine environment is an extension of what has been done on land: the conservation of a threatened group of animals (fishes) that would otherwise likely disappear from our waters,” Dr Fernando writes in an appeal.

The Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club sent the appeal to the Minister of Fisheries in May 2015 outlining reasons for a ban on spearfishing.

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

“This proposal would certainly inconvenience a few people. But we are confident that those who would be affected do not depend exclusively on spearing fish or renting spear fishing equipment for their existence. Like the hunters in days gone by, they will learn to live with the new rules. The result will be that the seas around Sri Lanka will once more be home to really large giant groupers and family groups of the humphead wrasse,” he observes.

“Removal of large coral fish could be detrimental to the whole coral ecosystem affecting other species as well. For example, the humphead wrasse feed on crown-of-thorn starfish that destroys coral reefs,’’ said marine researcher Rajasuriya. Also large fish such as the tomato grouper help maintain the holes in low relief reefs where the scarlet shrimp and painted shrimp take shelter. These shrimps are high value items in the ornamental fish trade and without the large fish the shrimp populations would die out and adversely impact the sustainability of the business.

The Sub-Aqua Club has appealed to the Minister of Fisheries to protect 15 large coral fish.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said spearfishing can be banned under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act section 28, listing the equipment under the illegal gear.

The marine experts also highlight the importance of banning illegal fishing practices such as dynamiting and bottom trawling.

A diver swimming with a gentle giant Hump-head wrasse (c) www2.padi.com

A diver with giant Hump-head wrasse (c) www2.padi.com

Groupers too threatened due to spearfishing 

Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but some other large coral fish such as Groupers are threatened due to spearfishing and other illegal destructive fishing methods. So Sub-Aqua Club in their appeal to the fisheries minister to take actions, lists following coral fish to be protected. 

 

Humphead Wrasse Cheilinus undulatus Endangered  

 

Tomato Grouper Cephalopholis sonnerati Least Concern
Whitespotted grouper Epinephelus caeruleopunctatus Least Concern
Blue and yellow grouper Epinephelus flavocaeruleus Least Concern
Brown-marbled grouper Epinephelus fuscoguttatus Near Threatened
Giant grouper Epinephelus lanceolatus Vulnerable
Malabar grouper Epinephelus malabaricus Near Threatened
Camouflage grouper Epinephelus polyphekadion Near Threatened
wavy-lined grouper Epinephelus undulosus Data Deficient
saddle grouper Plectropomus laevis Vulnerable
leopard coral grouper Plectropomus leopardus Near Threatened
Roving coralgrouper Plectropomus pessuliferus Near Threatened
Yellow-edged lyretail Variola louti Least Concern
Lyretail Grouper Variola albimaginata Least Concern
two-striped sweetlips Plectorhinchus albovittatus Not Evaluated
Tomato Grouper - threatened by spearfishing

Tomato Grouper – threatened by spearfishing

Blue and Yellow Grouper 

Blue and Yellow Grouper

Giant Grouper

Giant Grouper

Published on SundayTimes on 29.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170129/news/humphead-wrasse-killing-stirs-calls-for-protection-and-spearfishing-ban-226444.html

 

Projects endanger remaining forest cover

January 14, 2017

Forestry officials responding to recent reports of large-scale destruction of land in Wilpattu National Park deny such damage, while environmentalists charge that deforestation is widespread in the country.

The Conservator General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe, denied the existence of new large-scale clearances of forest cover around Wilpattu. “We have taken action against a party who cleared a forest land recently, but it is a small plot. The large-scale clearances that are being referred to took place in 2014,” he said.

Not only forests adjacent to Wilpattu - forests are under pressure everywhere in Sri Lanka.

Not only forests adjacent to Wilpattu – forests are under pressure everywhere in Sri Lanka.

Commentary on social media erupted recently over clearing of forest land north of Wilpattu National Park for settlements. Since then, a presidential task force has been mandated to investigate.

Sathurisinghe said a survey will be undertaken in Mannar with the intention to declare a wildlife reserve. “Once the area is declared a wildlife reserve, then these settlements too will have to be removed,” he said. The forest lands had been released by the previous government for settlements. But environmentalists say it was illegal and the incumbent Government could act on that basis.

“We should also focus our energies to stop forest clearances in other areas as well,” said Hemantha Withanage of the Centre of Environment Justice. He observes that there is great pressure on officials to release forest land for so-called ‘development’ projects. “So it is important to be vigilant. Forests in the North and East will face a lot of pressure because of development.’’

A recent study, “Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Sri Lanka” done under REDD+ Sri Lanka (REDD stands for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’) identifies three key contributory factors for deforestation —  encroachments, infrastructure development projects, and private agriculture
ventures.

There are other factors, too. Tree Felling – illicit or otherwise, cultivations, non-timber forest product gathering such as ‘walla patta’, cattle grazing, forest fires, gem mining are among factors that trigger the degradation of forests.

A recent survey by the Forest Department also found out that forest degradation does not necessarily involve a reduction of the forest area, instead it leads to the decline of the quality of the forests.

The REDD report indicates that several factors promote deforestation and degradation. There are plenty of examples where encroachments are made acceptable when governments give permanent deeds, specially ahead of elections. Weak enforcement and monitoring capability, poor coordination among agencies, demands due to population growth are some other reasons. However, political interference has been a major factor in deforestation, according to the report.

Land is needed for development and human settlements. But it is important to identify already degraded lands without sacrificing biodiversity rich forests environmentalists warn. The cost of losing the forest cover could be greater than the monetary value of a project, they say. “Doesa  a strategic assessment and identify zones with degraded lands without rushing to axe forests,” Withanage of the CEJ urges.

Yet more trees to be ripped up under Chinese deal 

More of Sri Lanka’s forest land is being marked out for ripping up under irrigation projects.

The Sunday Times learns that a large area of forest cover is expected to be sacrificed for the Maduru Oya right bank development project due to begin this year.

Maduru Oya is one of the major reservoirs built under the accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme of 1982 that planned to develop 39,000 hectares of agricultural lands in the Mahaweli ‘B’ zone in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts. While its left bank ‘developments’ have been completed, due to lack of funds, work on right bank projects did not begin.

Under the ‘Reawakening Polonnaruwa’ program the work is being revived.

President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, made a proposal to the cabinet last September. Accordingly, the Maduru Oya right bank project aims to develop drinking water supplies, irrigation, and infrastructure for the socio-economic development in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts.

The project will be financed with loans from the Chinese EximBank and the US$475 million (Rs 70.45 billion) engineering contract was signed last October between the state-owned China CAMC Engineering and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and the Environment.

Conservationists say the project would worsen environmental degradation.

The former director general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sumith Pilapitiya, points out that at least 18,000 hectares of forest land would be destroyed for new settlements and agriculture.

“The President, as the Minister of Environment talks about increasing forest cover in Sri Lanka to 30%, while as Minister of Mahaweli Development, his ministry is destroying over 18,000 hectares of forest lands. The loss of this forest land will certainly aggravate the human-elephant conflict, with elephants guaranteed to destroy crops brought under cultivation under the Maduru Oya right bank development project,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.

There are no winners in such ill-conceived projects. The country loses forest cover, the elephants lose their habitat, settlements are subject to human elephant conflict and farmers are affected when elephants raid their crops.  So why are we undertaking such a project?’’ Dr.Pilapitiya ponders.

There are examples from the past. There were no winners in the Walawe left bank development project, he notes.

“We fool ourselves by making statements such as Sri Lanka is going to increase her forest cover to 30% and destroying what little forest cover we have,’’ Dr Pilapitiya said.

The slithery unwelcome stranger and a pipe snake that escaped death

January 3, 2017
The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

Holidaymakers in Nuwara Eliya this season were in for a rude shock when a strange slithery visitor was spotted at the iconic Lake Gregory e. Many who flocked there suggested it could be a Cobra and a confirmation later by snake experts that it was infact a juvenile cobra caused shivers that had nothing to do with the weather, to many.

“But if you leave a Cobra alone you don’t need to worry,” said one expert. Although the Cobra (Naja naja) is a lethally venomous snake, it attacks only as a last resort when being cornered or accidentally stepped on. The Cobra when threatened will first display its hood and make a hissing sound in an attempt to scare away intruders. The one found in Nuwara Eliya was a juvenile cobra according to experts.

However, it is not common to find a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya and its environs as many snake species cannot withstand cold weather. “I have never encountered a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya,” said Herpetologist Dr.Anslem de Silva who has conducted many reptile surveys islandwide. Only rough-sided snakes belonging to the genus Aspidura and rat snakes are usually found in cold environments such as Nuwara Eliya.

Our Nuwara Eliya correspondent, Shelton Hettiarachchi said residents believe the Cobra may have ended up there in a goods vehicle from some other part in the country.

Meanwhile, the sighting of a pipe snake has also been reported. Minuwan Shri Premasinghe had sighted this unusual reptile on his way to the Sinharaja rainforest. The Pipe snake in Sinhala is known as the ‘Depath Naya’ with ‘Naya’ meaning ‘Cobra’ and ‘depath’ meaning ‘heads on both ends’ of the body. The Sinhala name was given by locals on observing the Pipe snake’s behaviour when it was agitated– it flattens the lower part of its body and points the tail forward. In this position, the ventral pattern appears like two large eyes with the cloacae appearing like an open mouth.

While making its tail erect the Pipe Snake also tugs its head under the body when facing a predator. This is a defence mechanism where the snake warns potential predators not to come closer. If the predator undeterred by the warning decides to attack, it first targets the ‘fake head’ which is in fact the ‘erect tail’. This gives the pipe snake a vital fraction of time to escape. Even if the tail is injured, it is not as severe than an injury to the head, which is vital for the snake’s survival.

The Pipe Snake is a nocturnal creature and Mr. Premasinghe had seen the snake at around 10 p.m. at Deniyaya. The pipe snake was nearly killed by mortified villagers who tried to attack it with wooden poles and iron rods.

The cobra spotted in Nuwara Eliya. Pic by Shelton Hettiarachchie

“The Pipe snake is a harmless non-venomous reptile and this one was nearly killed by terrified villagers. Only a handful of Sri Lankan snakes are lethally venomous, so innocent snakes too get killed as people do not knowto identify snakes,” said Mr.Premasinghe who pointed out the importance of educating villagers, particularly those living close to biodiversity rich areas such as the Sinharaha forest. Mr. Premasinghe released the Pipe Snake to the rainforest the next day.

The Pipe Snake scientifically categorised as Cylindrophis maculatus is in fact the first reptile described from Sri Lanka in 1754. It is also special as the snake was introduced to the scientific world by Carl Linnaeus who is known as the “Father of Taxonomy”– for formalising the modern system of naming organisms called binomial nomenclature in 1754.

Dr.De Silva states that the average length of a Pipe Snake is 500 mm. The longest Ceylon pipe snake spotted so far has been a 715 mm long female recorded from Deraniyagala in 1955, according to a book written by Dr.De Silva.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170101/news/the-slithery-unwelcome-stranger-and-a-pipe-snake-that-escaped-death-222494.html

Whiskered native – handle with care

December 25, 2016
New Catfish Mystus nanus

New Catfish Mystus nanus

In this season of giving, scientists studying biodiversity at the University of Peradeniya have offered Sri Lanka a gift that generations will want to remember – two new species of catfish endemic to the island.

One specimen is scientifically named as Mystus nanus with its latin name ‘nanus’ meaning ‘dwarf’ as the fish is comparatively small, growing between 8 centimeters and 10 cm. The other, is named as Ompok argestes, where ‘argestes’ refers to its range meaning ‘southwest’ indicating its presence in the southern wet zone.

Both these catfish were earlier thought to be native to Sri Lanka and India, but based on scientific findings, researcher Hiranya Sudasinghe determined they are separate species. The species in Sri Lanka only inhabits the island. Sudasinghe told the Sunday Times that he had visited South India to study the Indian catfish in same area where these species had been first detected.

Experts Rohan Pethiyagoda, Dr Kalana Maduwage, and Dr Madhava Meegaskumbura assisted the researchers. Studies also established the existence of another catfish species named Callichrous ceylonensis, earlier identified as a different species.

New Catfish Ompok argestes

New Catfish Ompok argestes

Catfish are a diverse group of ray-finned fish, with their fins being webs of skin supported by bony or horny spines. Catfish have two or four pairs of barbels and its resemblance to cat’s whiskers resulted in them being called that name. They inhabit the dark depths of rivers and muddy environments. They are also mostly nocturnal carnivores.

There are nearly 3,000 known species of catfish in the world and with the new discoveries, now there are nine different catfish species in Sri Lanka. The largest freshwater fish in Sri Lanka is also a catfish known in Sinhala as Walaya(shark catfish) which can grow up to a meter in length. “But now this large catfish is very rare, so its even categorised as endangered in the Red List of Sri Lanka published on 2012,” said Sudasinghe.

Hiranya Sudasinghe

The largest species of catfish is the Mekong catfish with the largest recorded measuring nearly three metres in length according to some reports.

Several exotic catfish species are popular aquarium fish with the most popular in Sri Lanka being the iridescent shark catfish, native to the rivers of Southeast Asia. It appears to glow because of its slimy skin.

Catfish are also known to be able to survive long out of the water. Some species move to a different water source, when their water hole dries up. They use their rigid pectoral fins as stilts to move. In Sri Lanka, both the walking catfish and stinging catfish are noted for being able to crawl on land.

Catfish do not have scales, but spines on dorsal and pectoral fins provide protection against predators. These spines can be locked into place so that they stick outwards. The hunga or stinging catfish as its name suggests, need to be handled with caution as it has venom glands linked to the fin spine that can deliver an extremely painful sting.

Another interesting fact about cat fish is that many can produce different types of sounds by rubbing their fins.

Habitat loss is a threat to this freshwater fish. Walaya and Ankutta are already tagged as endangered, and two other catfish as ‘near threatened’. Experts urge that freshwater habitat that remain be protected.

The invasive ‘tank cleaner’ catfishKnown colloquially as ‘tank cleaners’ – the suckermouth catfish has now become an invasive species in a number of waterways in Sri Lanka. It native range is tropical South America, but it has become a popular aquarium fish due to its ability to clean algae from fish tanks. The fish are sold when they are small but with their feeding habits, they can quickly overgrow the tanks. Owners then release them to local waterways.

“Be responsible and never release your aquarium fish to any natural waterway,” appeals Subasinghe. This he, says can cause an imbalance in the ecology of the island’s freshwater habitats.

Sri Lanka's largest freshwater fish - වලයා (Wallago attu)

Sri Lanka’s largest freshwater fish – වලයා (Wallago attu)

List of catfish species found in Sri Lanka 

* Mystus nanus: endemic (the new discovery) – Sri Lankan Striped Dwarf Catfish (conservation status – LC)

* Mystus ankutta: endemic – Sri Lanka Dwarf Catfish {Endangered – EN}

* Mystus gulio: long-whiskered catfish; Anguluwa, {Least Concern – LC}

* Mystus zeylanicus: endemic – Sri Lankan yellow catfish {Least Concern – LC}

Family: siluridae

* Ompok argestes – endemic (about 30 cm) (conservation status proposed as near threatened)

* Ompok ceylonensis – endemic (about 30 cm) (conservation status proposed as least concern)

* Wallago attu – shark catfish – Walaya in Sinhala (about 1 m – rare) {ENDANGERED – EN}: This is the largest freshwater fish in Sri Lanka

Family: claridae

* Clarias brachysoma – walking cat fish – (- Magura) endemic (about 50 cm ) {Near Threatened – NT}

Family: heteropneustidae

*Heteropneustes fossilis : Stinging catfish, (- Hunga) (about 30 cm) {Least Concern – LC}

Invasive

* Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus – suckermouth catfish

* Clarias batrachus – marbled catfish: Most popular in the aquarium trade

*Iridescent shark catfish – pangasianodon hypophthalmus

Stinging catfish (හුන්ගා) Heteropneustes fossilis

Stinging catfish (හුන්ගා) Heteropneustes fossilis

Walking catfish (මගුරා) Clarias brachysoma

Walking catfish (මගුරා) Clarias brachysoma

Published on SundayTimes on 18.12.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161218/news/whiskered-native-handle-with-care-220972.html

Curious humans take upside down view of orange-hued flyer

December 25, 2016

Beauty becomes a curse – a painted bat becomes a public attraction in Eppawala, Madiyawa 2012 – pure harrasment to the little creature (c) Internet

An attractive bat that is rearely seen, is best left alone if you find one hanging from a tree in your garden, researchers have appealed following media reports that have generated a buzz.

This week, news reports said an orange colored bat had been sighted in Thalgaswewa, Kanthale at a corn farm by its owner. After a three-hour struggle, the creature had been captured, the reports added. Amused villagers gathered en masse to take a look at the unusal specimen.

“This is not a new species, but a painted bat, scientifically categorized as kerivoula picta. It is a beautiful bat with a body color of bright orange with black wings and orange along the fingers. They also possess long, wooly, rather curly hair,” bat researcher Prof Vipula Yapa of the University Colombo said. The painted bat is a small creature with body length of between three centimetres and 5.5 cm. It feeds on insects.

“This bat can be found mostly in the low country dry zone – specially in areas such as Udawalawe and Embilipitiya, where there are banana plantations. During the day time, these bats hide among withered banana leaves,” says another bat researcher Gayan Edirisinghe. “Because the painted bat is mostly associated with banana plantations, it is also known as by the Sinhala name ‘visithuru kesel wavula’.

The painted bat usually flies out of its hiding place as dusk falls to begin hunting for food. They may often visit home gardens, but because people are not observant, they rarely notice the bat. But when they see it, this often leads to attempts to capture the creature in the mistaken belief it is a new species. Usually, it leads to the death of the creature.

The Kanthale bat found this week had been due to be handed over to the Department of Wildlife Conservation office in Kanthale. But when the Sunday Times contacted the office, no one had not heard of it.

“The painted bat is not that common, but they should be left alone. People should not try to catch them. Handling them badly can lead to death,” bat researchers plead. “It is also illegal to catch them.”

The painted bat is categorized as ‘near threatened’ by the Red List 2012. Sri Lanka is home to 30 different bat species. Nearly 20 of them feed on insects. These bats help to control the insect population.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.12.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161218/news/curious-humans-take-upside-down-view-of-orange-hued-flyer-220966.html

painted-bat-kerivoula-picta-in-its-ideal-habitat-c-gayan-edirisinghe

Painted Bat (Kerivoula picta) in its ideal habitat (c) Gayan Edirisinghe

Painted bat hit on vehicle Kanthale - Trinco stretch in 2011 (c) 2 Devsiri Peiris

Painted bat hit on vehicle Kanthale – Trinco stretch in 2011 (c) Devsiri Peiris

 

It’s scorpion season – but don’t scream and squash them all

November 30, 2016
14 of Lanka’s 18 scorpions are endemic and some are rare

The female red scorpion was found in Jaffna under the pillow of a sting victim and sent to Peradeniya University for identification and has now given birth inside the lab to several young ones

Another rainy season has begun, bringing that unwelcome visitor, the scorpion. Known for the venomous sting at the tip of its tail, scorpions cause panic and the immediate reaction is to squash and kill them – but wait, say researchers at the University of Peradeniya – “The scorpion you kill can be a species that is rare and threatened”.

Researcher Sanjeewa Jayaratne said a small scorpion found in his home last year was found to be a species new to science and endemic to Sri Lanka. “It was found inside my house. The little creature could have fallen from the wooden roof. There could be more such unidentified scorpions in other parts of Sri Lanka,” Mr. Jayaratne said.

Four scorpions new to science were discovered in an islandwide survey last year carried out by a team led by the University of Peradeniya’s Professor Kithsiri Ranawana along with a world authority on scorpions, Frantisek Kovarik, Mr. Jayaratne told The Rufford In-country Conference of Sri Lanka recently held in Kandy by the Bio Conservation Society. The Rufford Foundation is a British charity that funds nature conservation projects in the developing world.

The new finds bring to 18 the number of scorpions in this country, 14 of them endemic species.

The research team found the deadly Indian red scorpion (Hottentotta tamulus) – which arrived in Jaffna accidentally with the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces during the civil war – has adapted well to the arid conditions of the peninsula and is found in Achchuweli, Karainagar, Palali, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai.

While no deaths from scorpion bites were reported last year, 50-60 patients had to seek treatment for red scorpion stings, Professor S.A.M. Kularatne of the University of Peradeniya’s Medical Faculty said.

Only the Indian red scorpion’s venom causes severe illness: other scorpions have a mild venom and stings are very rare as many species live in the bark of trees, not in human dwellings.

The scorpion species found on floor of Mr.Jayaratne’s home was named Charmus saradieli after the famous outlaw Saradiel who lived in Uthuwankanda two centuries ago. Two other newly-found scorpions were named after Mr. Jayaratne and Prof. Ranawana –Reddyanus jayarathnei and Reddyanus ranawanai respectively. The fourth species is named Reddyanus ceylonensis.

Studying scorpions is not easy as they are nocturnal creatures. “We travel to selected research sites during the daytime and go into the field around 10pm to look for scorpions until day breaks,” a researcher said.

Larger scorpion species live in burrows and under rocks on the ground while smaller ones prefer to live in the bark of trees and are well camouflaged.

Researchers use a special UV light to spot the stealthy creature: it becomes illuminated in bright luminous blue when its exo-skeleton captures the light, Mr.Jayarathe said.

Most scorpions in Sri Lanka have a restricted range but two are common in many areas, including the world’s largest, Heterometrus swammerdami, which is nine inches (23cm) long.

Mr. Jayaratne has been stung by scorpions several times and says using local first aid – rubbing a red onion and lime mixture around the sting – and taking paracetamol relieved the pain within hours. People react differently to venom, however, so it is important to obtain medical attention if the victim shows great discomfort. In areas inhabited by the deadly red scorpion one should not take chances but seek medical help as soon as possible, Mr. Jayaratne advised.

Published on SundayTimes on 27.11.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161127/news/its-scorpion-season-but-dont-scream-and-squash-them-218301.html

Field observations conducted at night

Charmus saradieli - The Scorpion named after the outlaw Saradiel

Charmus saradieli – The Scorpion named after the outlaw Saradiel

New Endemic scorpion - Reddyanus ceylonensis

New Endemic scorpion – Reddyanus ceylonensis

New Endemic scorpion - Reddyanus ranawanai

New Endemic scorpion – Reddyanus ranawanai

New Endemic scorpion - Reddyanus jayarathnei

New Endemic scorpion – Reddyanus jayarathnei

Heterometrus swammerdami - One of the common scorpion in Sri Lanka. Can grow upto 9 inches

Heterometrus swammerdami – One of the common scorpion in Sri Lanka. Can grow upto 9 inches

Observing Scorpions Under UV light at night - they are brightly illuminate at the UV light

Observing Scorpions Under UV light at night – they are brightly illuminate at the UV light

First aid for scorpion biteA person stung by a scorpion would feel a painful, tingling, burning or numb sensation at the sting site. Most scorpion bites do not require much attention but If you are bitten in areas where the Indian red scorpion is found, or can positively identify the species, seek medical assistance immediately.

Wash the sting with soap and water and remove all jewellery in case it restricts circulation if there is swelling of tissue e.g. if there is a ring on a finger that starts to swell up.

Apply cool compresses on the sting area, usually 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off.

Do not cut into the wound or apply suction.

If the victim is five years of age or younger, seek evaluation by a medical caregiver.

Give a painkiller to relieve pain, but avoid aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) because they could contribute to other problems.

If symptoms increase in severity, go to a hospital emergency department.

http://www.emedicinehealth.com/

Don’t monkey around with our monkeys

November 20, 2016

Having a feast: Coconuts and bananas not spared. Photos by Rukmal Rathnayake

A peaceful resolution of the conflict for living space with our closest relatives

As monkeys struggle for existence while causing havoc to the people with their monkey tricks, the need to co-exist with our closest animal kingdom relatives was emphasised at an international conference here.

The Toque Monkey, better known as the Rilawa, causes more trouble than the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey or Kalu wandura, according to studies.

The Fifth Asian Primate Symposium hosted by the Sri Jayewardenepura University was held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel with seven countries participating to discuss ecology, biodiversity, human-animal conflict and related issues of interest to Asian primatologists.

An analysis of around 500 monkey-related complaints received by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), from 2007 to 2015 was presented at the conference by Dr. Tharaka Prasad, the DWC’s chief veterinary surgeon. According to him, 54 percent of the complaints have been against Rilawas and 29 percent against Kalu Wandura. Both these species are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Colombo which records the highest human population density had the highest frequency of conflicts of 115. Sadly, most of these are against the Kalu Wandura which is closed to the risk level of the Critically Endangered Western Purple-faced langur. Its conflict with humans severely undermines its future survival. Sri Lanka’s western region, where these langurs mainly stay, has only a few forest patches and the remaining habitats are also being lost or degraded. There are only a few protected areas, under the control of the DWC in the Western region, adding to the challenge of conserving these highly arboreal langurs.

Dr. Prasad who frequently treats injured monkeys said: “Monkeys are social animals. So we get into really difficult situations as to what we should do for the injured animals after they recover.”

At present, such monkeys are released to a location closer to Colombo as there is no alternative. There is a plan to build a facility to keep such monkeys, he said.

Sri Lanka is home to two other primate species — the Grey Langur and Slender Loris. Slender Loris monkeys stay mainly on the trees and rarely make contacts with humans. Even where Grey Langurs or hanuman monkeys are concerned, the number of human-animal conflicts is negligible.

According to the analysis, about 70 percent of the complaints relate to crop damage. Several other primate scientists, both local and international, made presentations at the symposium. A strategy to conserve and coexist with Sri Lanka’s monkeys was also presented in a paper prepared by Dr. Rudy Rudran of the Smithsonian Institute. Dr. Rudran’s research team is conducting an islandwide survey to identify important issues relating to monkey troubles.

Local researchers Surendranie Cabral, Sanjaya Weerakody and Rukmal Ratnayake say the utcome of this research may help to identify factors and reduce conflicts or tension between humans and monkeys.

Instead of viewing this situation in the grim terms of monetary losses due to the conflict, it should be seen as a challenge to the science of conservation biology, where coexistence of humans and monkeys is the key to conflict resolution, the symposium agreed.

A new huna emerges from unprotected Salgala forest

October 16, 2016
 Published on SundayTimes on 25.09.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160925/news/a-new-huna-emerges-from-unprotected-salgala-forest-209760.html

Herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe who revealed a brightly-coloured new tree snake from the Sinharaja forest last week has now announced the discovery of a new endemic gecko, found in the Salgala forest in Kegalle district.

The gecko, or huna in Sinhala, is a familiar creature: most of our houses are inhabited by a family of “house geckos” that mostly come out at dusk. The new gecko is different, being mostly active during the daytime. It prefers rocky habitats and is also smaller than the house gecko.

The researcher first found this Salgala gecko in 2012 while exploring the least explored areas of the country to fill in the gaps in knowledge on the reptiles and amphibians that live in those habitats. The research team found a healthy population of this gecko living in the wild around the Salgala area and also inhabiting outer walls of some of the houses close to the forest.

The new gecko is scientifically described as Cnemaspis rajakarunai, named in honour of Henry Rajakaruna, one of the masters of Sri Lankan photography, in recognition of his services to promote Fine Art Photography for over half a century. Mr.Rajakaruna perfected a technique of low shutter speed motion capture internationally known as “Rajakaruna style”.

In common language the Salgala gecko is called  Rajakarunage diva huna, Rajakaruna pahalpalli and Rajakaruna’s day gecko in Sinhala, Tamil and in English, respectively.

Geckos are interesting creatures: they lack eyelids and have a transparent skin that they clean by licking. It also has a well-known defence mechanism of being able to lose its tail. While a predator is distracted by a still-alive detached tail, the gecko is able to hide in a safe place and, in time, grow a new tail.

Geckos move upside down on ceilings using specialised adhesive toe pads that enable them to climb smooth, vertical surfaces. Geckos shed their skin and, it is said, is able to replace each of their 100 teeth every three to four months.

The new discovery brings to 45 the number of gecko species in Sri Lanka. There are about 1,500 species worldwide.

 

Salgala, where the new discovery was made, is a few kilometres away from Galapitamada, where the critically-endangered freshwater fish, bandula barb, has its sole habitat. Salgala is an unprotected forest patch, and that is of concern to researchers. Mr. Wickramasinghe said there was an urgent need to survey the unprotected ecosystems there since other new species awaiting discovery could perish if the habitat was destroyed.

Mr.Wickramasinghe’s work has been assisted by the Ministry of Environment, the Nagao Natural Environment Foundation and principal sponsor, Dilmah Conservation. Dulan Vidanapathirana and Gayan Rathnayake helped him with the research.

The new gecko was named after Henry Rajakaruna

The new gecko was named after Henry Rajakaruna

Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna

Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna

20-dream-stream

Dance in Trance – Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna

Ecological survival a shared responsibility

October 10, 2016

World Bank binds communities into visionary project – published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016

Sri Lanka and the World Bank have signed a $US45 million loan to help protect the country’s natural habitat and resources from degradation and over-exploitation. The Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) aims to address key issues in conservation while assisting to improve the lives and livelihoods of neighbouring communities.

ESCAMP was initiated in 2009 when the former Rajapaksa government asked the World Bank for a $US30 million loan. The bank, with assistance of number of experts, come up with a proposal including a science-based action plan to address number of conservation issues including the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) in selected areas.

Conservationists had high hopes for ESCAMP as a landmark project but in the latter stages of negotiation the Ministry of Finance requested fundamental changes and the World Bank decided to drop the project in 2011, fearing the changes would harm its objectives.

The Sirisena government showed interest in reopening the project and made a formal request. After updating the proposal both the WorldBank and Cabinet signed approval of the project on September 5. Most of the main components remain intact and this time the amount being given is $US45 million.

“The project will improve responsible planning and management of protected areas and other biologically and ecologically important locations throughout Sri Lanka,” said World Bank Senior Environment Specialist and Project Task Team Leader Darshani De Silva.

Importantly, it will create partnerships of environmental guardianship with local communities, she said. “It will help to create sustained linkages with communities living adjacent to protected areas to ensure participation in protection of critical ecosystems and benefit sharing, promote compatible developments within and around sensitive ecosystems, raise quality of visitor services and revenue potential of forest and wildlife resources, while developing the capacity of Forest Department and Department of Wildlife Conservation to deliver on their institutional mandates.”

There are four main components. One is a Pilot Landscape Planning and Management for Conservation scheme in two particular areas in the dry zone and biodiversity-rich wet zone. The second component, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and Human-Elephant Co-Existence, includes financing the scaling-up of successful human-elephant coexistence pilot projects along with identifying economic incentives for affected communities.

The third component, Protected Area Management and Institutional Capacity, has the biggest funding allocation, $US 24.2 million. It aims at supporting the Protected Area (PA) network, support of nature-based tourism development and strengthening of the institutional capacity and investment capability for conservation and management. Project management is funded as the fourth component.

Conservationists view ESCAMP positively as it clearly looks at long-term solution for many issues including human-elephant conflict. The proposal clearly specifies that project funds should not be used for failed solutions such as elephant drives or the capture and domestication of problem elephants.

The Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment will lead the implementation of the project in partnership with the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife. It is expected that ESCAMP will conclude in 2021.

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

Thousands of years old ‘near fossilized’ animal remains found in Yala

October 7, 2016

Bone fragments believed to be animals that died thousands of years ago were discovered from a rock pool in Yala this week.

They are parts of skeletons of elephants, tortoises, wild buffaloes, spotted deer, wild boar and other animals, say students of the Kelaniya University Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology who are studying the fossils.

The level of fossilisation indicates the animal bones are 1,000 to 5,000 years old, palaeobiodiversity expert Kelum Manamendra-arachchie said.

“Some of these bones could be older,” he added. With time, the organic materials inside bones are replaced by mineral substances and experts can estimate their age by observing the extent of this fossilisation process.

Fossilisation only happens in rare cases. Animal carcasses are usually eaten or bacteria can rots them away before fossilisation can occur.

Fossils are found when animals die in location where their carcasses – or parts of it – are protected from scavengers and the elements, such as when they are found on the seabed or a river bed and become buried in sand, soil or mud. Rock pools with beds of clayey mud are ideal, Mr. Manamendra-arachchie pointed out.

The bones were found during efforts to find water sources for thirsty animals. Due to the drought, many of the Yala National Park’s waterholes have run dry. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) sent a crew with a backhoe to deepen a rock pool known as Wel-mal-kema in Yala Block I.

These rockpools are the lifeline of wild animals during droughts as many of them have water when other water sources run dry. It is believed animals became trapped in the mud of this rock pool when they came there for drinking water thousands of years ago.

Through analysis of the bones, Mr. Manamendra-arachchie is able to surmise that wild buffaloes were plentiful thousands of years ago in Yala. The national park has a population of wild buffaloes but these are mixed with domesticated buffaloes. Mr. Manamendra-arachchie says the base of the hobes are thicker in wild buffaloes and there were many such skulls among the excavated bones.

This Wel-mal-kema is 30 feet long and believed to be 30 ft deep. Only half of it has been excavated and it is possible that there could be much older fossils.

Yala has a number of such rock pools, so there could be many mysteries waiting to be unearthed. The Director-General of the DWC and the Minister for Wildlife has requested the Institute of Archaeology to continue with this study in Yala.

Mr. Manamendra-arachchie said he analysed a similar, but smaller rock pool in 2005 in Thanamalwila from which he collected four truckloads of bones that, he believes clearly accounted for more than 100 elephants, 150 wild buffaloes, 200 spotted deer, 150 wild boar and 50 sambhur deer. Most of them had almost become fossilised. 

Published on SundayTimes on 02.10.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161002/news/animal-fossils-thousands-of-years-old-found-in-yala-211131.html

working-2

Students investigating the bones

Flawed approvals of mini hydro projects spell river, land destruction

September 28, 2016

This article was published on SundayTimes on 28.08.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html

Mini hydro power plants set up in sensitive areas can cause environmental damage and harm the biodiversity and ecosystem of forests, groups campaigning to protect Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and the environment have warned.
The Environmental Foundation Limited and Sri Lanka Jalani said this week that there are deficiencies in the approval process of plants sited in protected as well as ecologically-sensitive areas. They suggest that policy guidelines be developed on where such plants can be built.

Trees are felled, river banks are cleared causing erosion and and rocks are blasted to build these plants. Debris chokes the rivers.
A mini hydro power plant is built by building a weir (dam) to collect water which is then channeled to generate less than 10 megawatts. Already 145 such units are in operation and it is understood that more than 100 are being developed or under evaluation.

The Initial Environmental Examination is the main assessment that determines whether the environmental clearance should be granted for such plants. But there are serious inaccuracies or omissions, Dr Sevvandi Jayakody of Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries of Wayamba University, said. “Many of these IEEs contain a dubious list of animals and plants with important species present in the area missing. It is clear that those who conduct the IEEs either do not have proper subject knowledge, do it in a hurry, or biased.”

Rather than doing IEEs on a single project basis, it is important to assess the environmental impact on a whole stretch of river to assess the collective impact on the river, she said.

Protests in Gatambe

Regulations require that a free flow of water in a river must be ensured to help maintain the ecosystems downstream.
“But we have serious concerns on accuracy of calculations of the amount of water that needs to be released as environment flow. Who ensures whether the flow is constantly being monitored day and night?” asked Dr Jayakody emphasizing the importance of regular post-monitoring of operations of mini hydro plants.

Prof Ivan Silva who has a Phd in river ecology, said mini hydro power plants may help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but one must take into account the destruction caused by the felling of trees to build projects.

Sections of river that dry out can also create water pools that could generate methane, which is a worse than green house gases.
Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane, pointed out the need for more serious environmental impact assessments for mini hydro power plants in highly environmentally-sensitive areas. He also questioned the ethical integrity of some experts who conduct IEEs while sitting on panels that approve projects.

“Our aim is not merely to block the development process, but to make them sustainable,” EFL’s director, Shehara De Silva summed up.

Regulators reveal holes in their buckets

The Sunday Times contacted Sustainable Energy Authority, Director General, Ranjith Pathmasiri, who noted that most viable hydro power projects have been completed and the authority is at present focusing on solar and wind power. Referring to its role in commissioning of mini hydro power projects, he said the main responsibility was to grant an energy permit for engaging in and carrying on of an on-grid renewable energy project.

The Central Environment Authority carries the main responsibility for environmental aspects of mini hydro projects, he said. 

CEA Director General K. H. Muthukudaarachchi accepted there could be some issues with Initial Environmental Examinations handled by regional offices. He said that it has been decided that assessments for projects in sensitive areas be handled by the head office. Action will taken against projects where deficiencies are found.

When asked about post-monitoring of projects, the CEA head said it had to be a shared responsibility. The CEA does not have capacity to monitor by itself, he added.

Stand up for Conservation: Former Wildlife DG Pilapitiya urge civil society

September 26, 2016

Published on SundayTimes 25.09.2016 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160925/news/dont-leave-conservation-solely-to-wildlife-dept-former-dg-pilapitiya-209687.html

“Sri Lanka has the potential of being the best wildlife tourism destination outside Africa, but only if done the right way,” Department of Wildlife Conservation’s (DWC) former Director General Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya said at a public lecture on Thursday.

Delivering the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society’s (WNPS) monthly lecture on the topic, ‘‘Civil Society’s Role in Conservation” Dr. Pilapitiya, who resigned from the post in June this year after serving for a few of months, called on civil society to stand together and play a role in conserving wildlife as the DWC cannot do it alone, especially when it comes under political pressure.

“While revenue generation from wildlife tourism is important, it should not be done at the expense of conservation because if there is no wildlife, there is no chance for generating revenue from wildlife tourism. Therefore, DWC should give priority to conserving and protecting the country’s wildlife resources,” he stressed.

A survey carried out in 2010 by a university on visitor experience in wildlife parks revealed that a majority of foreign visitors who repeatedly holidayed in Sri Lanka visited a national park only during their first visit.“The “quality” of the visitor’s experience is much more important from the point of view of both wildlife conservation and revenue generation than the “quantity” or number of tourists visiting our national parks, Dr. Pilapitiya said.

Expanding on the aspect of quality, the former Director General said DWC guides have to be better trained in nature interpretation to provide visitors with a memorable experience. In addition, safari jeep operators should also be trained in driving etiquette and nature interpretation since many jeep drivers are not accompanied by DWC guides due to lack of staff. Discipline of safari jeeps and other vehicles entering the national parks was key to a better visitor experience, the former DG stressed.

He said currently about 650 safari jeeps are registered in Yala Block-I while ideally the  number of vehicles should be in the range of 150 a day to prevent overcrowding of the park. However drastic measures to limit the number of vehicles should not be taken overnight as there could be possible repercussions. “If we immediately restrict the number of vehicles many could lose their jobs. Economic opportunities in areas surrounding Yala are limited and these jeep drivers won’t have a source of livelihood. Don’t forget they know every bush in this wilderness and there is a lucrative market for bush meat. So what is the guarantee that such an act would not push them to be poachers which is far worse,” Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out, adding that the solution should be gradual and well thought out.

Over-visitation was a serious problem mainly in three parks–Yala Block-I, Minneriya and Horton Plains. He warned that there were signs of it becoming a problem in parks such as Wilpattu, Udawalawa and Kawdulla. “Let’s prevent over-visitation by imposing regulations now itself, Dr.Pilapitiya said.

The former DG also questioned the prudence of national planning that doesn’t envisage the bigger picture. He cited the plan to keep the Minneriya tank at spill level throughout the year for irrigation endangering the annual elephant gathering. Hundreds of elephants gather during the dry season around the Minneriya tank bed to feed on fresh shoot of grasses. If Minneriya tank is at spill level year round, a large area of the grassland that emerge during the dry season would  be submerged depriving the elephants of food. This would escalate human-elephant conflict in surrounding areas  in the short term time  with elephants looking for fodder compelled to raid crops.  In the long term the future conservation of the 300-400 elephants of the area would be in jeopardy.

The  gathering has been recognised as one of the 10 wildlife spectacles of the world. The overall revenue gained from wildlife tourism around the gathering  is estimated to be $1.25 million, but this would  be lost if Minneriya tank  was at spill level year round. Besides, no agricultural revenue generated from this irrigation project would add $1.25 million to the national economy, Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out.

The Government recently signed an agreement for a $45 million loan from the World Bank to carry out a project on Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) which has provision to fund activities to improve Wildlife Tourism. Dr.Pilapitiya stressed the importance of using these resources to make a significant improvement in the quality of wildlife tourism here.

Elephant under siege by jeeps at Yala Block-I (c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

Elephant under siege by jeeps at Yala Block-I (c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

Stand up for Conservation: Pilapitiya tells civil society

While the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) should be the driving force of the “Conservation Agenda” of the country, the systematic politicisation of the public service since the 1970s does not allow the department to do its job. While political authorities should provide policy direction and allow the agencies to implement the policies, now  politicians not only provide policy direction but they  get involved in implementation as well.  Unfortunately, a politician’s long term planning horizon is usually six years which is the election cycle, but for good conservation initiatives, planning must be on a much longer time horizon, Dr. Pilapitiya said.“While we should stand up against such interference, it is unreasonable to expect a person whose survival depends on the job to stand up to political pressure.  There are many instances in this country where public servants who stand up to political pressure have been victimised.

“Here Civil Society can play a bigger role. They do not face the pressure that DWC officers face, so if they can collectively have a voice, it can help mitigate some of the detrimental decisions that would hurt conservation goals,” Dr.Pilapitiya stressed adding that private enterprises should utilise their CSR money for more wildlife research as data was required to make sound decisions. He said Government funds allocated to departments hardly support research and information gathering. 

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

Sinharaja’s slithering new beauty

September 26, 2016

A new creature has been found in the Sinharaja rainforest, surprising experts who believed the well-researched forest had few secrets left.

Hidden from sight high in the tree canopy is a new and vividly-coloured snake now revealed by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe in an article published this week in the prestigious science journal, Zootaxa.

“The snake lives in the canopy of the forest and that could be the reason it eludes the eyes of researchers who frequent Sinharaja,” Mr. Wickramasinghe explained. He had first seen the snake as early as 2001 while conducting other research and had continued to search for this snake afterwards, managing to spot just six such specimens.

He has named the new snake the Sinharaja tree snake or Sinharaja bronze-backed snake.

treesnakegraphic-449x1024

The Sinharaja tree snake is a beautiful reptile with a unique colour pattern of prominent cross-bars in black and white and a red neck. It has a dark purple tongue. It has a slender body, rounded pupils, enlarged vertebral scales, and a head distinct from the body.

The live specimen Mr. Wickremasinghe photographed was recorded 15m high up in trees near Kudawa. “I was on top of a small cliff so the tree canopy was at eye level when I spotted the beauty,” he said, recalling his chance encounter.

The snake is active during the day and lives in the trees. Its large pupils give it very good eyesight, and Mr. Wickremasinghe believes sight, more than scent, is used to hunt prey. The snake could be feeding on geckos, lizards, skinks and could be laying its eggs in tree hollows.

The holotype or the single type specimen upon which the scientific description and name of a new species is based was unfortunately a member of the species run over on the road near Mederipitiya. Mr. Wickramasinghe preserved it in formalin and then began the painful scientific process of comparing it with specimens of other snakes to make sure it was not, in fact, already known to science.

Mr. Wickremasinghe assigned the snake to the genus Dendrelaphis and gave it the scientific name Dendrelaphis sinharajensis. In Sinhala, it is called Sinharaja haldanda and in Tamil, Sinharaja komberi.

The Dendrelaphis genus has 44 members around the world. There are six bronze-backed snakes in the country, three of them endemic. Although they share many common features, the colour pattern of Sinharaja tree snake makes it easily distinguishable from its close relatives.

The Sinharaja tree snake is rarely sighted, so it is likely to be rare, Mr. Wickramasinghe said, stressing the need for more research into the species.

Habitat loss and forest fragmentation could affect this species directly as it need trees to survive. But, sadly, the axe of destruction moves at the boundaries of the Sinharaja forest.

With the new discovery, Mendis Wickremasinghe has scientifically described 23 new species – two snakes, 11 amphibians, seven geckos and three skinks. He hinted that another discovery is on the way, so keep checking The Sunday Times for another new species very soon.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160918/news/sinharajas-slithering-new-beauty-209050.html

Repertoire: Mendis’ book wins awards at State Literary Awards 

Mendis Wickramasinghe is an outstanding wildlife photographer and his maiden coffee-table book,Repertoire, won two awards at the recently-concluded State Literary Awards, commended for presenting scientific information in a simple manner and for Kasun Pradeepa’s excellent layout.

Those interested in buying a copy should contact 0767 987 688 or purchase the book at a special rate from book fair stall no: L-379 of the Wildlife Trust. 

repertoir

Shark spotted in Menik Ganga

May 19, 2016

This article was published on 16.02.2016 on SundayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160214/news/extinct-shark-spotted-in-menik-ganga-182906.html

A few months ago, the apex predator of the freshwater riverine habitats, the crocodile, was reported in the sea off Wellawatte; recently the apex predator of the ocean, the shark, was reported in a river. The latest sighting of a shark in a freshwater habitat was reported by a group of wildlife lovers who visited Yala on January 23.

While travelling to their campsite in the evening they passed a bridge over the Menik Ganga that flows across Yala. The slow-flowing water in this part of the river is shallow and one of the group members spotted a large fish.

“That is a shark!” shouted Isuru de Soyza, pointing it out to the others before it swam away. Senehas Karunaratne, armed with a camera, had only a split of second to click before the shark took refuge under the bridge.

“The shark was about three feet long and quick in the water,” commented Mr. Karunaratne.

Rumours of sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga have been around for a while and Mr. de Soyza claimed to have seen one in the same section of the river a few months ago.

Photographic evidence of sharks in the Menik Ganga first came from a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG). While conducting an islandwide freshwater fish survey at the Menik Ganga about 7km upstream from the coast they spotted a shark in shallow, crystal-clear water about three feet deep.

They netted the shark and carefully brought it out of the water to take measurements. The shark was about three feet long. After photographing it, they released it back into the water.

The WCSG survey team had three more sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga and the Kumbukkan Oya, closer to Kumana.
Sri Lanka’s foremost expert on sharks, Rex I. de Silva, was sent the WCSG photo for examination and identified the shark as a variant of the Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hermiodon).

This species lives in the Indo-Pacific region from the Gulf of Oman to New Guinea, with most records from the coastal waters of India. The International IUCN Red List of threatened fauna lists the Pondicherry shark as “Critically endangered – possibly extinct”.

The Red List states that the shark was last recorded in 1979. Rex de Silva, however, states that the shark has been recorded in small numbers in Sri Lankan seas since the mid-1980s with the species’ presence in Sri Lankan waters first documented by himself in 1988.

Commenting on these sightings on the “Sharks of Sri Lanka” Facebook page, Mr. De Silva said it was important to differentiate between a shark in freshwater from a shark in a river.

“In times of drought, when river levels, fall seawater may intrude some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species may follow the seawater intrusion for a considerable distance up river, so although they are in a river they will still be in salty or semi-saline water.

When the salt water recedes the marine species follow it back to the sea. A shark in freshwater, on the other hand, is usually present farther up a river beyond the reach of salt water. As mentioned above, the shark photographed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle to date remains the only record of a shark from freshwater in Sri Lanka.”

Mr. de Silva states that anecdotal evidence over at least 30 years suggests that there are sharks in the Menik Ganga, but these sharks were not identified although speculation about their identity was sometimes offered.

Literature indicates that Pondicherry sharks do not grow much longer than about 3.3 feet and hence are not a threat to humans.

Sharks are not blood-thirsty man-eaters as Hollywood movies depict, so the presence of sharks in the Menik Ganga simply adds an interesting element to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and is nothing about which to feel panic.

A fisherman in Hikkaduwa caught a 12-foot, 350kg shark, reports last week said.

The shark was caught in deep ocean about 20 km from shore. Inspecting footage of the specimen, shark expert Rex De Silva provisionally identified it as a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Help for identifying a sharkAltogether, 61 species of shark have been found around Sri Lanka, however there could be more varieties living in our waters. Shark expert Rex de Silva maintains a Facebook group called “Sharks of Sri Lanka” and welcomes public sharing of images for identification purposes.

When forwarding images for identification it is best that a full lateral view (side view) is submitted as correct identification often depends on the relative positions of the fins, size and position of gill slits etc.

“I appreciate that obtaining a lateral view will not always be possible in which case any image is better than none and I am pleased to note the great interest in our sharks among lay persons,” Mr. De Silva states.

Mr. De Silva also launched a comprehensive book on sharks last year, with illustrations by prominent wildlife artist Jayantha Jinasena. Copies could be purchased from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), Department of Zoology, University of Colombo (call 2592609 or email fogsl1976@gmail.com

 

Mini hydros: Clean energy comes at high cost to Nature

May 19, 2016

This article was published on 14.02.2016 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160214/news/mini-hydros-clean-energy-comes-at-high-cost-to-nature-182949.html

Damming streams a ‘death sentence for many species’ 

Dam being built across the Anda dola. Pic courtesy Rainforest

Mini hydro plants, touted as clean energy power sources, are destroying eco-systems in some areas, experts warned.

In Sri Lanka, large hydro power potential has all been fully utilised and what remains are opportunities for small or mini hydro power. These smaller plants are blocking streams, threatening freshwater fish and the fragile ecosystem in these water sources, a conference heard last week.

The Dams, Rivers and Freshwater Fish in Sri Lanka conference was organised by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) to focus particularly on threats to Athwelthota feared from a proposed mini-hydro power plant.

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream.

Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law. But the change in flow is a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat, said Samantha Gunasekera, an expert on freshwater fish and orchids who until recently headed the Customs Biodiversity Unit.

“Different fish need different micro-habitats,” Mr. Gunasekera said. “For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water. But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely. With flow changes the PH value [acid levels] of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.”

“Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,” WCSG member Madhura de Silva said.
In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams, Mr. de Silva said. “Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.”

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost, Mr. Gunasekera fears.

He emphasised the importance of considering the collective effect of all the mini-hydro power plants on a stream or a river when carrying out environmental assessment.

Many streams have been marked as potential for building mini-hydro projects and already about 37 are in construction or evaluation phase, revealed CEJ member Hemantha Withanage.

Environmentalists revealed the damage caused by a number of these projects, among them the mini-hydro plant being built crossing the Anda dola in Dellawa forest close to Sinharaja rainforest and a plant at Koskulana in the northern Sinharaja buffer zone.

The Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka says these projects will damage the Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest complex.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana, the Rainforest Protectors say.

Anda Dola, a tributary of the Gin Ganga in the Neluwa Divisional Secretariat in Galle district, is the latest victim of the rapidly multiplying mini-hydro projects throughout the wet zone.

The weir and a 2.5 km section of penstock (concrete channel) has been constructed within the Dellawa rainforest, which is ecologically part of the Sinharaja Rainforest Complex. Due to construction happening within the protected forest reserve and negligence in part by the developer, the project is said to be causing massive environmental destruction affecting the stream, rainforest, soil and endemic fish in the region.

The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardene said project in such an environmentally sensitive area needs to undergo proper environmental assessment.

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) bears a significant responsibility to make sure Environmental Impact Assessments are being conducted thoroughly and to make certain the recommendations of the EIAs are being implemented. CEA chairman Professor Lal Dharmaratne said his institute would take action against those who violate the law.

A whale of a problem; Saving sea giants or saving industry

May 19, 2016

Article published on 07.02.2016 on SudayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160207/news/a-whale-of-a-problem-saving-sea-giants-or-saving-industry-182223.html

Scientists and economists debate major step of shifting shipping route

A Blue Whale hit by a ship in Lankan waters

There was heated debate over the problem of saving whales off Sri Lanka from ship strikes as a three-day forum last week heard the faster speeds at which ships now travel pose a heightened danger to these huge endangered creatures.

A major maritime organisation, however, declared none of its members had ever experienced a ship strike on a whale
A busy shipping route runs through the ocean off southern Sri Lanka which has been identified as an area in which the giant blue whale and many other whales are found in abundance all year around.

A proposal by conservationists to shift this shipping route, known as the Dondra Head Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), 15 nautical miles (nm) southward is hotly opposed by shipping industry representatives who argue the country’s economy would suffer if this were to happen. Some conservationists too question a shifting of the shipping path.

Last week’s consultative forum organised by the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) focused directly on this issue under the title, “The Environmental Health of the Ocean: First International Expert and Stakeholder Conference on Marine Mammals with special Reference to the issue of Ship-strikes and the IMO Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head”.

The Chairman of the Scientific Sub-Committee on Ship Strikes of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Dr. Russel Leaper, said whenever a whale path overlapped a shipping route ship strikes were possible. As ships become bigger and faster, the time a whale has to dodge an approaching ship decreases so ship strikes have become an increasing threat to whales, Dr. Leaper explained.

Dr. Thilak Priyadarshana of the University of Ruhuna and a group of international researchers who published a paper last year called “Distribution patterns of blue whale (Balaenopteramusculus) and shipping off southern Sri Lanka” advocate moving the shipping lane.

Whale researcher Dr. Asha de Vos too believes the whales off Mirissa are vulnerable to ship strikes. She said the blue whale population off southern Sri Lanka is unique as the whales appear to be staying in our waters throughout the year, a fact that could be attributed to a rich feeding ground.

Dr. de Vos showed the forum photographs of the whale that carried into harbour in 2012 and the horrific underwater images taken by photographer Tony Wu showing a blue whale carcass with a gash cut by a propeller on its tail that could have come from a ship strike.

“Less than 10 per cent of ship strikes are getting reported as the dead whales could sink or be found at a bad stage of decomposition after long time drifting and the reason for the death cannot be confirmed,” she said. “In some cases, in particular involving large vessels, captains might be unaware that a collision with a cetacean has occurred,” Dr. de Vos explained.

“The whales are in these nearshore areas because these areas are productive and have food. Imagine if there was a bus driving through your kitchen, how would you feel? You would have to go there to get food despite the danger of getting hit.

“The solution to this problem is simple. Shifting the shipping lanes a few nautical miles south of its current position will not really affect the shipping industry but will have huge gains for a species that is very valuable to our economy.

In fact, shipping lanes have been shifted to stop ship-whale collisions in many other parts of the world, so Sri Lanka is not doing anything out of the box or innovative. We will just be doing what is right,” Dr. de Vos stated.

Shipping industry representatives at the forum said they feared moving the shipping route would harm associated industries.

The close proximity of the shipping route to the southern coast of Sri Lanka, in between the two major ports of Galle and Hambantota, brings the opportunity of business from ships passing near the service ports, said Captain Ranjith Weerasinghe of the Company of Master Mariners.

“But ‘out of sight’ would result in ‘out of mind’, so a shift would affect Sri Lanka economically,” he told the IOMAC forum.

“Currently about 1,000 ships per month call for services off the port of Galle as a direct result of having the Traffic Separation System in our coastal proximity.

If this route shifted 15nm it would make the westward passage from Rondo Island coming out of Malacca straight through the Bay of Bengal a direct course to the north of the Maldives, making that the obvious position for shipping services, losing Sri Lanka an opportunity,” Captain Weerasinghe pointed out.

“None of our 275 members, the vast majority of Master Mariners of Sri Lanka, whose sea experience ranges from 12-40 years of sailing, has had a ship strike on a whale ever,” Captain Weerasinghe declared.

Based on the University of Ruhuna study, the NGO, Friends of the Sea, lobbied to push the Sri Lankan government into submitting a proposal to shift the shipping route last year but the government wanted to study the proposal further.

“It is true that we need to conserve the whales, but we should also look at our national interest,” said IOMAC Secretary General Dr. Hiran Jayewardene. He called it as a campaign to prevent ships coming to the ports of Sri Lanka.

“We need hard facts to evaluate whether ship strikes are a very frequent occurrence off southern Sri Lanka that can affect the blue whale population,” he said. “Even if we move the lane further south, what is the guarantee that it will not affect other populations of whales?” Dr. Jayewardene said.

The Director of Research of the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), Howard Martenstyn, also said there was not enough evidence to determine the ship strikes is a major threat to whales off Mirissa. Commenting on the 2012 incident where a Bryde’s whale carcass was dragged into harbour on the bow of a vessel, Mr. Martenstyn said that could have been a drifting dead whale carried by the ship.

He said the photograph of a gash wound on the whale could not definitely show whether the whale died due to ship strike or whether a drifting dead whale had been struck with a propeller.

Mr. Martenstyn pointed out there was no significant increase of carcasses found on the southern coast, saying if the whales off Mirissa were regularly hit the number of dead whales found in these areas should show an increase.

Dr. Russell Leaper of the IWC said the accuracy of Sri Lankan whale ship strike records would be reviewed by a panel of international experts over the next few months before being entered into the IWC database and this would resolve some of the confusion between researchers in Sri Lanka over these records.

“Compared to other areas where shipping lanes have been moved to reduce risks to whales, Sri Lanka has a very strong case,” Dr. Leaper said. “Of all the whale and ship strike problems I have worked on in other areas this is probably the clearest case of the highest risk and also the most straightforward action that could reduce risk.

“We see that moving the passing shipping further offshore could only benefit Sri Lanka. As well as protecting whales it would greatly reduce the risks to whale watching vessels. This is an accident waiting to happen which would have serious consequences for Sri Lanka’s tourist industry.

“Shipping safety would also be improved with lower risk to coastal fishing boats, lower risk of collisions between large ships and less chance of oil spills along the coast. It also allows more space closer to shore for ships using Sri Lankan ports.”

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, who led an aggressive media campaign to brand Sri Lanka for whale-watching, said whale-watching generated much more money than whale watching bookings alone would suggest as customers used the full spectrum of accommodation and other services.

“So whale watching is now a key element for tourism in the south and any move to protect these whales is welcome by the tourism industry,” he said. “The Indian Ocean blue whale population is low due to extensive illegal whaling in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s.

Furthermore, like many long-lived animals, population recovery can be slow. Therefore every individual that is saved by reducing ship strikes will help conserve these intelligent and sentient beings and help the livelihoods of people in the south,” Mr. Wijeyeratne said.

Sri Lanka’s whalesNineteen whale species have been recorded in Sri Lankan waters by the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), and there are in total 28 species of marine mammal, including dugong, off our shores.There are two kinds of whales: those with teeth and those that are toothless but have special plates called baleen to filter food. The giant blue whale is a baleen whale. The sperm whale, the largest toothed whale, can live in super pods of more than 100 creatures, a spectacular sight.

Off Mirissa, once in a while, are sightings of orcas or so-called killer whales. This is probably the most intelligent marine mammals and, sadly, is often a feature in large aquariums, trained to perform tricks. They have won hearts in films such as Free Willy.

Whales are slow breeders so if a number of individuals are killed in a short period of time the recovery of the population is slow.